Puppet Master

March 29, 2011

Maggie Winston slips her hand up the old woman's spine, swivelling the head in a fluid, distinctly human motion. She wears the puppet over her arm as a second skin, its legs an extension of her own. The voice, to someone who's heard Winston's, is startling when it comes out of the life-size head of pantyhose and foam. "Hello there," she croaks. "I see you've met my granddaughter."

Winston, 27, has dark curly hair and a serious manner that belies her colourful leg warmers and layered sweaters. The answers she gives are thoughtful and measured; she glances nervously at my tape recorder. The stuffed old woman, on the other hand, jostles my elbow and shoves her face in mine, shrieks and cackles with her head thrown back-she couldn't be more alive.

Winston has that effect on audiences, too. A performer and teacher around the world, she's earning a name for herself in her adopted home of Vancouver as a teacher with Arts Umbrella and local schools and community centres. Earlier this day, she taught a workshop to the early-childhood educators of Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House, which serves disadvantaged families on the East Side. Playing with sock puppets and performing for one another, the participants were giddy. Knee-deep in donated fabrics and found materials, foam stuck in their hair and on their wool sweaters, fingertips singed by hot glue, they laughed uproariously, uninhibited as children. One teacher lifted a half-finished penguin. Her voice was musically Spanish. "I wanted to make a puppet to do with winter, you know? Because winter is so sour!"

"They're experiencing that magic feeling-when you're connecting with the puppet and it's all of a sudden real," Winston says later. "It's like a click that happens inside."

Growing up in Baltimore, Winston attended a repertory arts high school. She wanted to be in theatre but grew disillusioned at Sarah Lawrence College in New York (alma mater to Julianna Margulies, J.J. Abrams, and Alice Walker). "I got so sick of the prescribed formula: script, director, actors. Everybody else in my department wanted to be in musicals and live in New York and audition for the rest of their lives. I was more interested in just making theatre."

Three years of study with the celebrated puppeteer Dan Hurlin changed the trajectory of her career. She was introduced to various styles of puppetry: European toy theatre (the hand puppets in a box favoured by Oscar Wilde and Mr. Dressup), marionettes, found-object animation, and Hurlin's own specialty, the Japanese art of banraku-multiple, visible puppeteers for each puppet. Her class was taken into the city to see the many shows supported by indigenous audiences and grants, including work by New York favourites Roman Paska and Basil Twist. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence with a bachelor's in performance puppetry and studied abroad for a year at the British American Drama Academy in London.

Winston moved here in 2005, drawn by the usual: ocean, trees, mountains, family. But that's not why she stays. Like many artists, she appreciates Vancouver's relative youth, its lack of fixed identity. The regard is mutual; last year she received the Mayor's Arts Award for an emerging artist.

Puppetry is itself an emerging discipline in the city, though its roots extend back to the '60s. The Vancouver Guild of Puppetry was the brainchild of Alfred Wallace, past president of the Puppeteers of America; in 1961, the Junior League of Vancouver brought him from New York for a workshop, where he encouraged attendants to establish the guild. In 1965, that organization opened a Puppet Centre and hosted the Hogarth Puppets of England for workshops and performances. The centre closed the next year. Today, the guild functions in name only-Winston is herself a member-but events like the In the House Festival, the Children's Festival, Fringe, and the Halloween Parade of Lost Souls offer opportunities and venues to puppeteers. "The puppetry community in Vancouver is small but growing," Winston says. "Every day someone asks me, ‘Do you know so-and-so? She does puppets.' And I say, ‘No! I thought I knew all the puppeteers in this city!'"

Winston's shows are prime examples of what makes puppets uniquely affecting. Objects can come to life-as in her first show in New York, which explored the sex life of two airplanes. The body can be a stage, as in her Shakespeare-inspired show Sycorax's Story, where Winston's skirt houses marionettes and Prospero's island. Here in Vancouver, she collaborated on We're All in This Together, a large-scale shadow puppetry show about addiction in the Downtown Eastside; the story has the imagistic, surreal quality of film with the interpersonal connection of live theatre.

Last December, Winston packed a suitcase-sized show and hit the road. She taught a teacher-training course in Chandigarh, India-how to add storytelling and puppets to a curriculum based on discipline and rote learning-then went on to perform in Cape Town, South Africa. In nearby township schools and windy, open dirt fields littered with broken glass, she had to rely on repetition, gesture, and voice to convey her show to Afrikaans-speaking audiences. She also helped youth develop and produce their own shows; one group won an internship with professional puppeteers. "I just wanted to be there and be part of it. There's so much going on in South Africa in the way of social change that all you have to do is express an interest, and then there's someone right there telling you a thousand things you can do."

Even as Winston teaches and performs internationally, she keeps her gaze pointed homeward, to Vancouver's nascent scene. "I want to bring that magic here."

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